Pardon Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez for smiling, but he is coming off the biggest week of his tumultuous coaching tenure in Ann Arbor and finally has momentum on his side.
His first two seasons at Michigan were highlighted by horrid defenses, an NCAA investigation and losses -- lots of losses.
Rodriguez entered 2010 with an 8-16 overall record and a 3-13 mark in the Big Ten, and the program had hit lows not seen since the 1960s. In 2009, Michigan registered its worst Big Ten finish (1-7) in 47 years. The 16 combined losses in 2008-09 were the most in any two-year span in school history. Michigan also has missed bowls for two years in a row for the first time since 1972-74.
The pressure was turned up in February, when the NCAA accused Michigan of five major violations pertaining to exceeding time limits on practices and workouts. This may have been Rodriguez's worst transgression, as Michigan's proud football program never had been on probation.
Add it all up, and Rodriguez sat on one of the hottest seats in the nation.
"A lot of coaches say they ignore it," Rodriguez told Rivals.com before the season. "You can either get upset, laugh at it. I don't think much of it."
Compounding maters was that Rodriguez was working for a new boss in athletic director David Brandon. But he wasn't heaping pressure on Rodriguez. "Forget all of this hot-seat nonsense," Brandon told Rivals.com in August. "All I want to see is a team that's on the move and improving."
Still, it looked like RichRod had to deliver a bowl this season -- or else. Following a 5-0 start, it looked as if the Wolverines had turned the corner. But the Wolverines lost three in a row and looked primed to repeat the second-half swoons that ruined Rodriguez's first two seasons in Ann Arbor.
In 2008, Michigan opened 2-2 but proceeded to lose seven of its last eight to finish 3-9. In 2009, the Wolverines saw a 4-0 beginning melt away with losses in seven of their last eight games.
It looks as if 2010 will be different. The Wolverines stopped the bleeding last week with a wild 67-65 triple-overtime victory over Illinois. The win made Michigan 6-3 and bowl eligible for the first time under Rodriguez.
"We talked about, it, thought about it," Rodriguez said after the victory. "We talked about it ... that you've got to get to six to be bowl eligible and every win after that elevates your bowl status. Our guys realize that, especially our seniors."
The victory also gives the program some much-needed momentum as it heads to Purdue for a winnable game. A victory in West Lafayette, and the Wolverines' home game against Wisconsin on Nov. 20 suddenly becomes a big game nationally.
The win over the Fighting Illini was only half of the good news Rodriguez received last week. Early in the week, the NCAA's charge that Rodriguez failed to promote an atmosphere of rules compliance was reduced to failing to monitor. "We were pleased to learn that the Committee on Infractions agreed with our position," Brandon said.
Now, Michigan can focus on the field.
Best matchup: Northwestern QB Dan Persa vs. Iowa's defensive front seven. Persa ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense (303.6 ypg), behind only Michigan's Denard Robinson. Persa is capable of doing a lot of damage with his feet and arm. And he'll be facing a Hawkeyes squad that was a dropped Indiana pass in the end zone away from getting beat last weekend. Iowa hasn't forgotten that Northwestern was the team that derailed its 9-0 start last season with a 17-10 win in Iowa City. It will be up to E Adrian Clayborn, T Karl Klug and LB Jeremiha Hunter to contain Persa and beat the Wildcats to set up a huge visit next week from Ohio State.
Player on the spot: Penn State junior QB Matt McGloin. He has emerged as an unlikely star. He will start this week at Ohio State and will need to continue to shine for a team that has won three in a row. A win would improve Penn State's bowl prospects and basically end the Buckeyes' Big Ten title hopes. McGloin has helped spark the offense since entering the Minnesota game after Rob Bolden got hurt, tossing two touchdown passes in the 33-21 victory. He became the first walk-on in school history to start at quarterback the next week, throwing for 250 yards and a TD in a 41-31 victory over Michigan. Bolden returned from injury last week against Northwestern; he started, but was ineffective and pulled. McGloin came in to rally Penn State from a 21-0 hole to a 35-21 win.
Numbers game: Michigan QB Denard Robinson needs 146 yards to set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in rushing, has 1,349 yards. Air Force's Beau Morgan set the record of 1,494 in 1996.
What they're saying
"Sunday was his first day in the office and it was great seeing him, great to hear his voice. He had a few comments to make about things in general, so that was good." -- Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on the return of defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who had his right foot amputated because of complications from diabetes and hasn't coached since early September
"I think probably more than anything, they're embarrassed. I texted most of them on Saturday night and most of them texted me back, and they put it behind them and learned from it and we'll go from there." -- Illinois coach Ron Zook, on his defense, which gave up 67 points and 676 yards in a triple-overtime loss at Michigan last week
"I don't know the specifics of what goes into those things. I realize that somebody has got to program them, so you wonder what is going through there and how exactly they come up with their formulas. But the poll I really appreciate and respect is the coaches' poll." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on the BCS computer polls. The Badgers are 8-1 and ranked No. 7 in the BCS. Wisconsin is No. 5 in the Harris and coaches' polls, but the Badgers' average rank in the computer polls is only 10th
Etc.: Michigan State is off this week. ... Wisconsin RB John Clay is expected to be available for Saturday's game against Indiana despite having a sprained right knee. Clay was injured early in the second half of last week's win at Purdue. Wisconsin also expects freshman RB James White to return to action; he hurt his left knee against Iowa two weeks ago. ... Iowa expects RB Adam Robinson to play at Northwestern after he missed last week's win at Indiana with an injury. ... Michigan's Denard Robinson should be fine this weekend at Purdue after missing the fourth quarter and the overtime sessions in last week's win over Illinois with concussion-like symptoms. ... After Purdue won at Michigan last season, Boilermakers coach Danny Hope took offensive lineman Zach Reckman to midfield to shake Rich Rodriguez's hand. Hope thought some of Rodriguez's comments earlier in the season had led to Reckman being suspended by the Big Ten following a late hit. Hope says all is well between him and Rodriguez. ... Illinois looks to become bowl eligible on Saturday when it plays host to Minnesota. The Illini have missed the postseason each of the past two years. ... Speaking of Illinois, the Illini have forced 12 turnovers in the past three games and converted those into 56 points. ... Nine Big Ten teams -- all but Indiana and Minnesota -- still are mathematically alive to earn at least a share of the conference crown. ... Purdue has won the past two meetings against Michigan. The last time the Boilermakers won three in a row against the Wolverines was 1962-66, when they won five consecutive meetings.